Keeping Vigil with the Dying

Editor’s note: this post was originally published on September 11, 2011.

Thinking back today on that unimaginable morning in 2001 I am reminded of how long I sat, glued to the images repeating themselves on the television screen. It seemed the more horrific, more unbelievable the images became the more I had to watch. Like all of us, my mind was reeling, trying to make sense of what had happened and what was going to happen. I sat in our little apartment with my brand new baby and toddler, wondering what was coming for us and how I could possibly keep them safe. And I watched.

It is this watching that is curious to me. We speak of  not being able to look away from a train wreck. Why is that? Why when tragedy strikes to do we hunger for the images and stories of suffering, chaos, and grief? I suppose there are many reasons. Like myself on that day, we watch because we feel vulnerable. We want to know what might happen and make a plan (however feeble) to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe should we ever encounter such a scene. It is a way to comfort ourselves in the face of uncertainty. But, more than this, I think we watch because we are keeping vigil. In the best parts of ourselves I believe we yearn to do what Christ has done for us, to become intimately acquainted with another’s grief, to take it into ourselves and know for ourselves what that experience was for each person in each moment, that we might know how to succor, to heal, to mend. That, above all, they might not suffer alone.

I remember watching a woman on The History Channel describing the events of September 11th. She was on the roof of an adjacent office building watching the towers burn. She spoke of the horrible moment she realized that what she was watching fall from the buildings was not just debris, but bodies. These poor souls, trapped and tortured, were flinging themselves from windows to the streets so far below. The woman recounted how someone had later asked her why she would stay and watch such a terrible scene. She replied that she could not leave them. She felt that by staying and witnessing their pain she could let them know in these last, desperate moments that they were not enduring this alone. Hearing this, I cannot help but think of the Savior’s plea to his disciples, “Could ye not watch with me one hour?”.

The terrible events of 9/11, the tsunami’s in Thailand and Japan, hurricane Katrina, the suffering of refugees in war torn lands. We sit, entranced, unable to tear ourselves from the images of suffering, often hoping for new images, more complete stories. We want to take it all in, every last piece. We want to rescue those we watch, but knowing we can’t, we hope to relieve a part of their suffering by suffering with them. We seek to bear their burdens by making those burdens our own. Is this not the gospel of Jesus Christ? Our tiny souls, stretching to accommodate even a part of another’s soul. In similitude of the Savior we seek to offer ourselves, to move ourselves to the background of our own hearts so that there might be room for another to abide there, a place to seek shelter. In these terrible moments we are shaken awake, recalling our most primal nature, that we are members one of another, inseparably bound. The division of miles, cultures, and beliefs are shattered, we see our shared humanity, our connectedness to one another laid bare. Allowing another to infiltrate our souls this way we become most who we are, sharing in what little ways we might the Savior’s moments in Gethsemane. We watch with Him as we watch with one another.


  1. Thank you for this.

  2. Thank you for sharing these thoughts this morning Sunny.

    I am in the US at the moment and am planning to attend Church later today. This post has helped me prepare my heart for that worship service.

  3. Beautiful, Sunny.

  4. well said

  5. Thanks, Sunny. This is a wonderful post to read this morning.

  6. Exactly what I needed this morning. Thank you, Sunny- you’ve helped stretch my soul, too.

  7. I remember watching video clips of people jumping, and thinking what a terrible choice they faced with no time to think it all out. May God bless all those who suffer.

  8. The accounts of jumpers who attempted to make parachutes out of curtains and table clothes stuck with me most vividly. These were people forced to make unimaginable choices.

    Then on September 12 our society began to make choices. Did we choose wisely? Bravely? Nobly? Did we become a better society as a result of the attacks? For some reason today my mind has focused more on the events subsequent to 9/11, a decade not marked by a sense of shared connectedness to one other.

    We watch one another as with Him when bombs jolt us, but when the dust settles we quickly return to our selfishness, our wars, and our fear of The Other. If 9/11 provided a glimpse of humanity’s divine potential, the ensuing decade showed us how very far we have to go.

    Sorry for being a bit of a downer, but it’s just how I feel today.

  9. Chris Gordon says:

    I don’t think I’d been prepared to give us the benefit of the doubt, content to label us a gawkers, but I see a lot of wisdom in this insight. Thank you for making it easier not to judge. :)

  10. #8: Mike,
    I am like you. I forget nothing of the shocks of that day__but it was only the first day of a ten year sad happening__ that has yet to end.

  11. Sunny, I was going to write a post about how I have NOT looked. I still have never seen video of the towers coming down, the aftermath of Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti. I cannot bear to look, and regard it as a huge moral failure that I’m unable to “watch with [them] one hour…”

  12. Beautiful. It is hard to write such things as this; thank you.

  13. Beautifully written and helps me to explain myself, I hope, to those who ask me “How can you watch?” I hope that my watching, and now on this anniversary re-watching, rises to the level of compassion you describe.

  14. Thank you, thank you, for this.

  15. Sunny, this is a treasure. I have nothing to add.

  16. Thanks for your responses and kind words, all.

    Mike, I think the best we get in this life are glimpses of our potential, moments of grace. It is inadequate and only magnifies our collective social failures in contrast, but they are precious moments nonetheless. Your words also remind me of President Monson’s thoughts in The Washington Post this week. He laments the very things you do.

    Kristine, Forgive me. My perspective is limited to the small view from behind my own eyes. Your own way of grieving, remembering, and honoring is no less heartfelt or charitable, I am sure. Each of us can only bring what we are, and I think that has to be enough. Also, I hope you will still write your post. I would love to see these things through your eyes.

  17. Nothing to forgive! I agree with you, and would have written a very similar post (just not as good!).

  18. Thank You.

  19. Sunny,
    I am in awe with how you are able to express yourself with such beautiful words and imagery.

    Thank you.

  20. Ugly Mahana says:

    Mike, thank you for your comment. In many ways, I think your sentiment matches Pres. Monson’s On Faith editorial.

  21. Kathryn had had our first 2 months before and I staid home with him a couple of mornings a week, while she worked for a while. I watched the towers fall live while holding him. That is how I remember it, and your mentioning of a similar situation resonated with me.

  22. I hadn’t thought about our tendency to watch, gawk, not look away as watching over and suffering with before. Thank you for expanding my view of possibilities.

  23. honey there was some catastrophic events in the world today
    how horrible.
    what’s for dinner?
    how complacent are we?

  24. #8 Mike, at least in the US, our reaction to those events officially, and our acquiescence to that reaction, as a people (as Americans and as Latter-day Saints) is the greatest shame of my lifetime. History will either look on us with scorn, or the underground annals will record that this is where it all fell apart.

  25. One of my favorite posts from BCC (or any blog?). I refer back to this periodically but had forgotten about it this year. Thanks for reposting. Thanks Sunny for capturing so perfectly why I feel it’s not only ok but also an excellent idea to keep watch, even if just by tv stream, with those in the midst of suffering.